12 Unsettling Medical Stories Through History

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Vote up the baffling medical cases that don't sit quite right.

Medicine, like other branches of science, has the power to explain some of the most unusual ailments human beings can experience (though, to be fair, there have also been several medical devices that are more than a little horrifying, particularly to modern eyes). 

While many medical conditions are easily explained, and some appear quite normal, there have been, throughout history, examples of baffling medical cases, many of which retain their power to fascinate. Some of these remain mysteries even to modern science, while others have been rendered explicable and understandable by various discoveries and developments in knowledge. 

These rare medical conditions demonstrate just how miraculous, and unsettling, the human body can be.

  • Some People Have Lived Normal Lives With Almost No Brain
    Photo: Garpenholm / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
    1,870 VOTES

    Some People Have Lived Normal Lives With Almost No Brain

    The brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body. As vital as it is, however, there are several recorded instances of individuals managing to survive with almost no brain tissue at all; many have even been able to lead otherwise unexceptional lives

    A 44-year-old French man, for example, astonished doctors when he came in after experiencing weakness in his leg. Doctors were shocked when scans showed he only had a tiny amount of actual brain material; it had been largely overcome by fluid over the course of his life, which had not drained in the usual fashion. The condition reportedly eroded most of his brain and left him with about 10% of his neurons. The man was married with two children and had an IQ of 75, which is not classified as a mental disability. 

    Other notable examples of those living with  a smaller-than-average amount of brain tissue include a Chinese woman with no cerebellum (the part of the brain that controls various motor functions) and a young man who had only a brain stem. 

    1,870 votes
  • 2
    1,646 VOTES

    Gloria Ramirez Became Known As The ‘Toxic Lady’ When Hospital Staff Treating Her Started Fainting

    The case of Gloria Ramirez, who became known as the “Toxic Lady,” is one of the more tragic stories to have emerged out of modern medical science. After she was rushed to the hospital in February of 1994, staff noticed several unusual things - the patient's skin had an oily sheen, her mouth had a fruity, garlicky odor, and a blood sample taken smelled of ammonia and contained floating manila particles. Stranger still, the staff around her started fainting and reporting numerous health conditions. This unfortunate state of affairs continued even after her passing, when similar symptoms afflicted those attempting to conduct an autopsy. 

    Though her death was attributed to cervical cancer - she had been diagnosed with the disease shortly before her arrival at the hospital - the explanation for why so many people experienced symptoms around her wasn't as clear cut. The first investigation determined that the strange odor had caused mass sociogenic illness in the stressed hospital workers, essentially mass hysteria. But after the staff was unsatisfied with this conclusion, assistant deputy director Pat Grant took another look and came up with another theory.

    Grant believed Ramirez had been covering herself with a substance called DMSO - dimethyl sulfone - presumably thinking it would cure her cancer. The substance becomes dimethyl sulfate when exposed to oxygen and, when breathed in by humans, causes many of the very symptoms reported by the staff encountering Ramirez. DMSO was marketed as a cure-all in the early '60s, before it was labeled as a toxic substance.

    Still, Ramirez's family denied that she ever used DMSO, and a definitive answer remains elusive.

    1,646 votes
  • 3
    1,309 VOTES

    A Man’s Terrible Case Of Hiccups Was Caused By A Tumor

    Most people have at least some experience with the hiccups. While a nuisance, however, the condition typically passes without issue. For Chris Sands, however, long-term hiccups proved quite debilitating, leaving him without a job and without a girlfriend. During one of his worst bouts, he suffered hiccups every two seconds over 14 hours. 

    Initial testing didn't reveal the cause of Sands's hiccups, and after doctors determined there wasn't a psychological cause, Sands says he was essentially out of options

    …[W]e got back to the doctor and he said, "Well, that's it." He said, "I have done everything I can do. You're on your own." This was 4 and a half months into it.

    For the next several years, Sands searched for cures of his own, and eventually turned to the media to try to find help. While being filmed by a Japanese television crew, a doctor finally found a diagnosis: An MRI revealed a tumor on Sands's brainstem. He had surgery in 2009, and surgeons managed to remove a significant amount of the tumor. Since then, the hiccups have subsided, though it did take some time for him to recover from the surgery. Without the operation, Sands said he would have been dead within two years.

    Sands isn’t the only documented case of terrible hiccups. An Iowa man named Charles Osborne, is reported to have constantly hiccuped for 68 years, from 1922 until they inexplicably stopped in 1990. 

    1,309 votes
  • Phineas Gage Survived An Iron Rod Impaling His Brain, But He Wasn’t Quite The Same
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,147 VOTES

    Phineas Gage Survived An Iron Rod Impaling His Brain, But He Wasn’t Quite The Same

    The history of medicine is filled with individuals who survived traumatic accidents, but few endured quite as much as Phineas Gage who, while working on a railroad in Vermont, survived an iron rod driving through his skull. Though he survived - and was, apparently, even able to joke with the doctor on the day of the accident - he was left scarred and blinded in one eye.

    The impact of the injury went far beyond blindness, however. The brain trauma changed Gage’s personality in substantial ways, and many of his acquaintances reported he was an entirely different person than he had been before the incident. A doctor who treated him claimed that the balance between his “intellectual faculties and animal propensities” seemed to have disappeared. The change was so drastic that the railroad construction company where he'd suffered the injury refused to take him back as an employee. 

    Gage passed at the age of 36, at the home of relatives. He would go on to become one of the most famous individuals in the history of neuroscience, and his skull is still on display at Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum.

    1,147 votes
  • 5
    1,114 VOTES

    An Author Woke Up One Day And Found He Couldn’t Read

    For many adults, reading is an activity they do almost without thinking about the mechanics of the process. For one man, Howard Engel, such an assumption is no longer possible, because he woke up one morning to find he could no longer read. A stroke had left him with a condition often referred to as “word blindness.” 

    However, Engel could still write - in fact, he went on to publish a memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read, in 2008. While some might panic, Engel instead seemed to feel a sense of calm. As he noted in an interview with NPR: 

    It would have been terrifying if the reality was constantly present when, in fact, it kept disappearing. It wasn't - I was only aware of it when I needed a piece of information, and then, even then, I was only aware of that fragment of information that had just gone missing. I wasn't aware of the totality, a whole library of things that were no longer available to me.

    After his stroke, Engel worked, as he put it in the same interview, to make his disability a friend. In addition to the memoir, he also wrote several detective novels before his passing in 2019.

    1,114 votes
  • There Were Several Cases Of Exploding Teeth In The 19th Century, And No One’s Sure What Caused It
    Photo: Jan Steen / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,120 VOTES

    There Were Several Cases Of Exploding Teeth In The 19th Century, And No One’s Sure What Caused It

    Many people are afraid of going to the dentist, and it’s easy to see why. Tooth pain is an affliction many people don’t want to deal with, and it can often be very stressful having someone mess around in one’s mouth. For those living in the centuries before the advent of modern dental and medical techniques, dental pain could be very agonizing indeed; one man was even reported to have committed suicide as a result of suffering from a toothache for five months.

    For several people living in the 19th century, things got even worse when their teeth actually exploded. Some, including a woman known as Letita D., even claimed to have heard a sound accompanying the explosion, as well as, more fortunately, relief from the extraordinary pain. Though there were almost half a dozen cases reported in the 1800s, none have emerged since the 20th century.

    It is still unclear just what, exactly, caused the phenomenon. Though dentists at the time had their suspicions, many of these relied on debunked scientific theories. Even the most plausible explanation - a mixture of various metals used to create fillings might have interacted with one another and engendered random electrolysis - isn’t viewed as particularly likely by scientists. 

    1,120 votes